A Legislative panel Thursday endorsed rules and regulations implementing a law enacted this year which affects how small wineries in Arkansas sell their products in grocery and other retail stores.
Also, without discussion, the committee adopted a rule allowing patrons at the state's two pari-mutuel race tracks to consume free alcoholic drinks in either facility's gambling areas.
"Amazing how that works," one lawmaker said later about the lack of discussion on providing alcohol drinks to people in the gambling areas at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park.
The Legislative Council's Committee on Administrative Rules and Regulations considered a variety of rules and regulations cobbled together by various state agencies in response to requests and legislation approved during this year's regular session. Some of the new rules simply deleted obsolete language.
Several of the proposed guidelines were in response to Act 668, the wineries law sponsored by Rep. John Paul Wells, D-Paris.
Wells said after Thursday's meeting that the regulations are designed to put the state's wine laws into compliance with a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which struck down a Michigan law that prohibited the state from giving preferential treatment to in-state wine producers over out-of-state wineries.
He also said Act 688 is designed to address issues raised in a federal lawsuit filed in 2005 by a Little Rock man who claimed Arkansas' laws prevented him from ordering wines directly from out-of-state wineries.
The state Attorney General's Office has asked U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright to dismiss the lawsuit.
During Thursday's committee meeting, state Alcoholic Beverage Control Director Michael Langley said one of the new regulations changes the time that small local wineries in Arkansas can begin selling wine from 9 a.m. to noon.
Stores currently cannot begin selling out-of-state wine until noon.
Langley said the rule was changed because of the federal court lawsuit.
"The crux of that lawsuit is the particular statute that we're talking about here, which is when a local, in-state winery can sell," Langley said.
If the state loses the lawsuit, in-state wines will be available for purchase only in liquor stores.
The state also could be asked to pay about $1 million in attorneys' fees if the lawsuit is lost, he said.
If the state wins the lawsuit, Langley said, rules and regulations could be changed to allow in-state wineries to return to selling wine at 9 a.m.
At Wells' request, Langley later agreed to pull a proposed regulation that would prohibit in-state wineries from actually setting their wines on the shelves at stores. The regulation would allow the wineries to restock only floor displays.
Wells said the regulation would hurt small store owners with few employees.
"This would hurt the mom and pop stores that don't have enough employees to do this," Wells said. "I think it would hurt small vendors the most."
After that regulation was pulled, the committee endorsed all the other ABC rules and regulations unanimously with little discussion.
Later Thursday, Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, said his group, which opposes giving free alcoholic drinks at Oaklawn and Southland, decided not attend Thursday's meeting because he doubted it would have made a difference in the panel's decision to endorse the rules.
"I'm very disappointed in the ABC board," Cox said. "They have demonstrated such a lack of responsibility. What this rule does ... is allow people that run the gambling establishments to create hazards in the community by getting people drunk and then sending them off out onto the highways after they've lost their money gambling."